The Wealth of Irving Kristol


Writers &.Writing THE WEALTH OF IRVING KRISTOL BY ROBERT NISBET rvlng Kristol has long had a penchant for introducing or supporting the unpopular in our dominantly liberal-progressive...

...Writers &.Writing THE WEALTH OF IRVING KRISTOL BY ROBERT NISBET rvlng Kristol has long had a penchant for introducing or supporting the unpopular in our dominantly liberal-progressive intellectual circles, and an uncanny instinct for uncovering the fatal flaw that so often lies in their conventional wisdom It would be negligent to suggest that he is a popular mind in most intellectual areas from Boston and New York to Berkeley and San Francisco, but his native brilliance and his mastery of a very large body of reading, classical and contemporary, make him a formidable antagonist I can think of no one in American (or English) intellectual life who has done as much to supply stimulus and leadership in the turning of a still small but increasingly powerful group of writers, teachers, government officials, and others from the lame pieties that have reigned in this country since the New Deal, supplying motivation to so much that is ostensibly scholarly or scientific in nature Lame the pieties may be in substance, yet their capacity for destructive effect upon liberal government and the social and economic order has by now become a matter of record One of the qualities that has allowed Knstol to dissect this cant and convince others is his mastery of that very difficult form of expression, the essay—in his case the political essay Not the article, which is so commonly prolix, gratuitously detailed, and has all the scaffolding showing, nor the lengthy book review that goes here, yon and everywhere, except to the work under consideration, but the essay compact, lucid, blessed with a visible theme, and most admirable of all, a beginning, middle and end Indeed, nowhere in recent years has the political essay been as effectively written as it is in each of the chapters of Knstol's new collection, Two Ckeers for Capitalism (Basic, 274 pp , $10,00) The author would have been quite at home, I should guess, in the English 18th century He is equally at home, however, in the closing quarter of the 20th century It is good that he is For almost certainly this quarter finally will see the resolution of the burning question of our time whether the liberal democracies will survive attacks, on the one hand, from the nakedly military, aggressive Communist despotisms of the world and, on the other, from those within the Western countries whom Paul Johnson has effectively labelled "Enemies of Society " I refer to the fanatical environmentalists, the enemies of economic growth, the population-food doomsayers, the assailants of reason in the name of the Almighty Self, the New Prohibitionists, and the egalitarians Kristol has something to say about each of these, and his remarks are characteristically trenchant Of the environmentalists he writes "Making the world safe for the environment is not the same thing as making the environment safe for the world " One can only agree with his judgment that the Environmental Protection Agency has become "the major obstacle to the inner city " Project after project, often desperately needed by the poor who live m squalor and other conditions of misery, is held up these days on the ground of "noise pollution " The mind boggles at the thought of such bureaucratic assessment of human priorities The author, moreover, is among the first American thinkers in our age to realize that the emergence of egalitar-lanism is a threat to both freedom and privacy His essay "About Equality" is right on target The great bulk of the American people does not brood over inequalities in the economy and the social order The great bulk of intellectuals does With the mass production of intellectuals in the Robert Nisbet , A ibert Sch weitzer Pi ofessor Einei itus at Columbia University, is the authoi o/Twilight of Authority 20th century, Knstol notes, a traditional hostility to bourgeois society is inevitably transmitted to "our college-educated middle classes, and most especially the children of these classes," who, possessed of the material comforts, "permit themselves the luxury of reflecting uneasily upon the inadequacies of their civilization " Their preoccupation with meaning, purpose and, above all, self leads to the feeling of a hostile universe, society and government around them "The spiritual history of mankind is full of such existential moments, which are the seedbeds of gnostic and mil-lennanan movements—movements that aim at both spiritual and material reformations Radical egahtananism is, in our day, exactly such a movement " Knstol makes no bones about the state of mind known generally as utopianism For him it is quite literally a form of madness He writes "I am using the term 'madness' advisedly and not merely to be provocative The intellectual history of the past four centuries consists of islands of sanity floating in an ocean of 'dottiness,' as the British call it " Without question such minds as Comte, Saint-Simon, Fourier—Utopians all—were tinged by madness, in the clinical sense of the word Once, though, Utopians and their messages were relatively few and far between Today, in enlarging areas of the West, utopianism is a chronic condition—chiefly among intellectuals, but through them in other parts of the population as well "it is not too much to say that we are all Utopians now, in ways we no longer realize, we are so habituated to them Further than that we are even Utopian when we thmk we are being very practical and rational " Blights of this kind upon realism and sanity would not be possible, Knstol holds, if there were not a church, so to speak, within which dogmas of environmentahsm, egalitar-lanism, utopianism, and the like could be nurtured, prayed to and disseminated to the widest reaches of society This church, for Knstol, is what he calls the "new class " Here "we are talking about scientists, teachers and educational administrators journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of government bureaucracy, and so on " A motley assemblage at first sight but, given their common values, aspirations and Utopian imaginings, they constitute a true class—one that is quite powerful in our contemporary order and unlikely to disappear Y M et Two Cheeisfoi Capitalism is not a pessimistic book The new class, despite its great power in government and key sections ol society, can and probablv will be ar-lc-sted, it not actually dissolved, by the atttaction of the business sector to the gieal maionlv ot Americans "This can happen not because of the sell-e\ idem virtues ot business, but because ol the piolound appeal ot individual liberty to all Americans, and because of the equally profound distrust of big government by Americans ' Still, 1 agree entirely with Knstol that there are steps to encourage the process that should and can be taken by business, beginning with the large corporations Why, the reader may ask, only two cheers for an economic system whose essentials the author is deeply committed to9 Mutatis mutandis, the answer is the one E M Forster gave on democracy the best of extant systems of government, entirely worthy of our support, but needlessly flawed by the actions of those who should, by all lights of reason, carry it to even higher achievement In poll after poll businessmen are ranked low in trustworthiness by the American people, and the larger the business the lower its standing Now, as Knstol has demonstrated, much of this is the result of hatred transmitted by the new class But not all of it In several thoughful chapters, chief among them "Ethics and the Corporation" and "The Corporation as Citizen," he suggests restraints and self-discipline of a moral nature that would in no way, or so it seems to me, diminish the corporation's capacity to attend to its fundamental business, which is business It is not anything Utopian, needless to say, that Knstol offers, he repudiates any view that the corporation should, in the interests of society, become involved in each and every dimension of the social order Nevertheless, we live, all of us, in a political society We always have and we always will And where Knstol finds the American corporation most often deficient is precisely in its political awareness The corporation, we are used to saying, is an individual in law Knstol suggests that it should become something more "A corporation may be a fictitious person in law, a kind of abstract version of 'economic man,' but there are moments when it will be expected to behave like a real citizen in fact Such behavior is both businesslike' and 'responsible' in that it reflects self-interest rightly understood' (as Tocqueville so grandly put it) That is to say, it takes cognizance of the important truth that in a liberal democracy, everyone's self-interest is best served if each of us is capable, when required, of temporarily rising above self-interest That is the social responsibility of the corporation to behave like a citizen when circumstances seem to require it, and regardless of whether or not the law-demands it 1 yield to no one in commitment to the principle [hat the most important single thing a corporation, or an\ form ot business, can do is produce goods, make profits and produce still more goods But no great institution—noi the church, not the family, not the state—can sur\ tve in the allegiances ot human beings it if contents itselt with onh one function, ho\\e\er vital that function may be It is (he signal virtue of Irving Knstol's 7no Cheers /or Capitalism that, through praise ot the svstem, through brilliant counterattack upon its assailants, \e( also through measured criticism ot the system, it puts within our view the combination ot economic and moral excellence Adam Smith made luminous two centuries ago in his 11 calth ol \anons...

Vol. 61 • June 1978 • No. 13

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